Pardes is a story that revolves around Arjun (ShahRukh Khan) and Ganga (Mahima Chaudhary). A running theme throughout the film is also the beauty and worthiness of Indian culture and values, which are often overwhelmed by the perceived desirability of Western culture and values.
Kishorilal (Amrish Puri), a wealthy Indian businessman living in America, visits his old friend Suraj Dev (Alok Nath) in India. During his stay at the conservative, traditional Indian household, he gets to know Suraj's eldest daugther, Ganga, who shares his love for India and Indian culture. Ganga's younger siblings are enchanted by the uncle from America, and because they perceive Western culture and values to be so desirable, they cook up a plan to impress him with a Westernized song. Unimpressed, he sings back a hymn-like song in a more traditional Indian style, "I love my India." Ganga joins in this song, expressing her equal love for India. The song emphasizes the movie's theme in key moments.
Kishorilal asks Suraj to promise Ganga as a bride for his westernized son, Rajiv (Apoorva Agnihotri). He is convinced that Ganga will be not only a perfect bride, but the way treasured Indian values are revived and passed on in his Americanized family and large circle of Indian friends and business acquaintances. Suraj's family accepts the proposal. Kishorilal knows he will have a tough time trying to convince his son to marry or even meet Ganga. Back in America, asks his foster son, Arjun (Shahrukh Khan) to help his plan along. Arjun, who has been working in Kishorilal's personal garage and making music with his band, is being interviewed as the composer of the new musical hit "I Love My India". However, when Kishorilal calls to ask for his help, his loyalty to his uncle is so strong that he cuts the interview short.
Arjun flies to India ahead of Rajiv to set the stage for him to meet Ganga, unintentionally offending Ganga's family with a barrage of orders that includes removing farm animals from sight and relocating their servant. When "Ganga" is first introduced, she is hideously made up, with horn-rimmed glasses and buck teeth, sending Arjun into a panic about the success of Kishorilal's plans. Later, when he meets the authentic Ganga, he is entranced, and in an effort to make up for his offensive behavior, promises to be a trustworthy friend. Immediately after they shake hands, Ganga moves the farm animals and the servant back into the enclosed yard. She explains to Arjun that her family loves all who are a part of it, even animals and servants, in contrast to Arjun's apparent and somewhat Western view that they are not very important.
When Rajiv arrives, he also acts offensively; sometimes intentionally, and sometimes because he has no idea of anything Indians consider rude or inappropriate. But Arjun, despite his own attraction to Ganga, smooths the way out of loyalty to Rajiv and Kishorilal. In his determination to help the marriage come to pass, Arjun deceives Ganga about Rajiv's character and habits; he assures her that Rajiv is a "nice guy"; he also covers up for Rajiv, telling Ganga the cigarettes she found in Rajiv's room are his own. Rajiv and Ganga agree to the wedding.
The engagement is set in India, but the families agree that Ganga should come to America before the wedding. Ganga arrives in America, and is hurt to hear her traditional dress and "foreign" manners despised by Rajiv's snaky mother at a party in her new home. However, at a very large and influential gathering arranged by Kishorilal, she is invited to sing. She sings "I love my India" and receives warm, sincere applause. In her new surroundings, her only friend and confidant is Arjun, with whom she begins to form a special bond. Little by little Ganga realizes that Rajiv isn't the person Arjun portrayed him to be. Rajiv not only seems eager to leave her at home whenever possible, with little explanation or apology; when he does bring her out with his friends, he smokes, gets drunk and acts like a bully. At one party, he is drinking and flirting with other women while a Western man begins dancing too closely with Ganga; though Rajiv ignores the situation, Arjun loses his temper and fights the man to the ground. Later, Ganga is shocked to discover pictures of Rajiv with his girlfriend that clearly show he has had a sexual relationship with her. She is also astonished to find that Kishorilal's family treats Arjun, a near relative and loyal friend, as a servant, contemptuously dismissing the idea of his joining them for dinner or even eating in the same house.
When Rajiv abandons Ganga for dinner with his girlfriend, who he is still seeing, Ganga confronts Arjun. Arjun justifies Rajiv's behavior, reminding Ganga that Rajiv lives like an American, and that she should not make a fuss about such a petty affair. This exchange leads to a key monologue from Ganga. Infuriated that Arjun sees Rajiv's casual, unapologetic unfaithfulness as a "petty affair", she tells him that she demands love - the kind of love he (Arjun) gives others. Rejecting "love" that is less, she further rejects being made into a decoration to fit into Kishorilal's palatial mansion. Arjun realizes that he has fallen in love with Ganga, but because of his immense loyalty to Kishorilal, he continues to encourage her to stay with the engagement and worry about "changing" Rajiv later.
On the next day, Arjun's birthday, he is depressed and wants to be alone. However, Ganga finds out and asks Rajiv to go with her to wish Arjun a happy birthday. Rajiv rudely refuses, making it clear he also views Arjun as some kind of servant. Ganga visits the garage without Rajiv, joining a surprise party thrown by Arjun's band mates. Inevitably, Rajiv's hostile mother notices the growing friendship between Ganga and Arjun and warns Kishorilal. He arranges for Arjun to leave the city immediately, telling him he has been promoted, and must start with a board meeting the following morning in another city. Kishorilal then informs Rajiv, who is on his way to another party in Las Vegas, that he must take Ganga with him. In Las Vegas, Rajiv gets drunk and reveals his true contempt and hatred for India; he derides Indians as "hypocrites", and "stupid". Ganga heatedly responds that Indians hate America's drug-riddled, amoral alternative. Furious, he tries to rape Ganga; after a violent struggle, she knocks him unconscious and flees. Kishorilal starts making calls to try to track the missing Ganga down, but Arjun goes looking for her and finds her crying at a train station with her clothes torn. He tries to persuade her to go back to Kishorilal's home, but she refuses. Arjun promises to protect her and help her get back to her family in India.
Just after they arrive at her home in India, Kishorilal calls Ganga's father. Believing Arjun eloped with his daughter, Suraj tries to kill him with a family sword that hangs on the wall. Arjun seizes the sword and swears to Ganga's faithfulness and chastity. Then he leaves, intending never to return. Meanwhile, Suraj locks Ganga in a shed, breathing threats of murder. Ganga's siblings and grandmother sneak in and advise her to run away with Arjun. Ganga realizes that she is in love with Arjun, and with their help, secretly leaves the home. By this time, Kishorilal has arrived in India with Rajiv.
Ganga catches up with Arjun at a temple, and demands he confess his love. Still loyal to Kishorilal, he refuses, insisting that he does not love her. Ganga is devastated, but before he walks away, Rajiv turns up with several thugs to kill Arjun. In the ensuing fight, Arjun takes a terrible beating before getting the upper hand. Kishorilal walks up with Suraj just as he is about to kill Rajiv. Kishorilal invites Arjun to honorably kill himself with the gun he has ready, and demands Arjun "tell the truth" about how he came to be in India with Rajiv's promised bride.
This leads to the second key monologue of the film. Arjun confronts Kishorilal with not wanting to know the truth; people who want the truth, don't ask for it with a gun. He accuses Kishorilal of having become a true Westerner after all, since his wealth has eviscerated his compassion and ability to examine the truth when it doesn't match what he wants it to be. Confessing that he does, in truth, love Ganga, he affirms that he never pursued her and has acted honorably, while Rajiv in every way rejected honorable action and lied about how Ganga came to have returned so suddenly to India; not only was Ganga (personification of the most valued aspects of Indian culture), unable to merge with Western culture, Western values (in the person of Rajiv) almost utterly ruined Ganga (Indian values). Ganga confirms Rajiv's attempted rape, then tells her father she is willing to die by whatever means he chooses; poison, fire, or hunger. This pivotal scene both verbalizes and symbolizes how good, happy, pure Ganga (Indian values), instead of being able to uplift and enrich Rajiv (Western values), has been sacrificed to the unsuccessful attempt to merge India with the West. Ironically, it also highlights one way in which Western culture can be viewed as more just and compassionate than Indian culture, since a Western bride can break off an unsuitable engagement without risking death at the hands of outraged family members.
Stunned, but realizing he has indeed heard the truth, Kishorilal affirms that Ganga will marry his son. Rejecting Rajiv (and, symbolically, his own Western compromises), he embraces Arjun as his true son, and blesses the engagement between his son and Ganga.